Friendly Skies

We all know the airline industry is in trouble. Politicians are handing carriers big subsidies to stay in the air. Meanwhile, on the ground, grassroots organizations are speaking up about environmental and health problems caused by our over-reliance on air travel, from the sprawl that it imposes on a community to the pollution and noise created by overhead aircraft. Neighborhood activists in many cities point to increased rates of cancer and asthma in adults, and higher levels of blood pressure and stress hormones in children who live under airport flight paths.

Jim Starry, an environmental designer in Oakland, California, thinks many of these problems stem from one major flaw: the design of airports. He has conceived a new kind of airport he believes would solve those problems. He calls it the StarPort. The concept is relatively simple. Planes land on an inclined runway, so they burn less fuel to slow down, and take off on a declined runway, saving even more fuel. They park above an underground terminal, where rising heat means no need for de-icing (about 50 million gallons of de-icer pollute water supplies near cold-weather airports each year). Flying in and out of the StarPort, he figures a typical Boeing 747 would save about 1,000 gallons per flight. And StarPorts can be built closer to cities because they require only 15 to 25 square miles of unpopulated land, as opposed to the 50 square miles or more needed for traditional airport designs.

?Jim Starry isn?t just talking about a new kind of runway,? Ed Ayres wrote in the environmental magazine World Watch (July/Aug. 2001). ?To him, the whole mindset that has created the modern major-hub airport doesn?t make sense. It?s a mind-set based on an almost never questioned assumption?that the solution to rapidly increasing demand for air travel is to provide an ever-increasing supply of land, fuel, and air space. As a result, in its total impact on climate, ecology, and health, today?s mega-airport may be one of the most ill-conceived forms of large-scale infrastructure humankind has ever devised.?

Before 9/11, the StarPort concept was gaining public momentum and the attention of the media. Then came the terrorist attacks, and focus shifted to the airlines? economic woes. Now the time seems ripe to look at how air travel can be improved as a whole, rather than just bailing out the airlines.

Around the world, we?re about to see an airport building boom. China will have built 29 new airports by 2005. Twenty new airports are currently slated for Mexico?s Baja Peninsula. In the United States, 2,000 airports have expansions or additions in the works. If those airports became StarPorts, Starry calculates the fuel savings would amount to 2 billion gallons a day, enough to end our dependence on Middle East oil.

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